WASILLA — Coming off a rough patch that saw the Palmer boys limp into this weekend’s Northern Lights Conference Basketball Championships, the Moose pulled off one of the upsets of the tournament’s opening day Thursday.
Unfortunately, it came in only the first half of a deflating 56-51 overtime loss to No. 1-seeded Kenai Central.
The Kardinals may have been the league’s No. 1 seed from the Southern Division boasting an 8-2 NLC record, but Palmer’s one-two punch of Connor Looney and Jackson Buresh came out swinging from the opening tipoff. The duo combined for all the Moose first-half points — Looney for 20 and Buresh for 13 — streaking out to a 33-19 halftime lead.
Looney would finish the game’s high scorer with 30 points.
But one half of dominating basketball wasn’t enough to put away the senior-laden Kardinals. Led by 13 second-half points from captain Bo Reilly, Kenai turned up the intensity on its defense to force overtime, then pull ahead in the final four minutes. For the game, Reilly and point guard AJ Hull led the way for the Kardinals with 20 points each.
Although Kenai came into the tournament one of the favorites to push a talented Wasilla (10-0 NLC) team for the league title, Palmer wasn’t an easy win, Kenai head coach Ken Felchle said.
“I want to credit (Palmer) coach (Jason) Marvel and that team,” Felchle said. “That is a quality basketball team and I have the utmost respect for what that program stands for.”
He also expressed respect for the Moose for starting fast against a good defensive team, especially the play of Looney and Buresh.
“They came ready to play right away, they punched us in the face,” he said, adding that a fast start is exactly what he warned his team about going into Thursday’s quarterfinal game. “We talked that we cannot have a slow start, because we’d have to expand so much energy coming from behind, but that’s exactly what we did.”
For the Moose, the overtime loss was a tough pill to swallow, but also a benchmark to show Palmer’s potential against the NLC’s best, Marvel said.
Kenai “is just a great team, a well-coached team,” he said. “We knew they were going to go on a run at some point. They have five seniors on that team. … In the second half, I think we played really tight and the guys weren’t going to the basket like we game-planned. I think nerves got in the way of that. We’re not playing to win, we’re playing not to lose.”
While Palmer found its groove early, Kenai’s defense was the difference in the second half, Marvel said, even while Palmer led for much of the game. In fact, after taking an early 8-7 lead with 3:51 left in the first quarter, the Kardinals had to scratch and claw the rest of the way. By the 2:45 mark of the second quarter, Palmer had built its largest lead, 27-12, off a strong Buresh post move.
Kenai cut that lead to five, 43-38, by the end of the third quarter, and tied the game at 47 with 1:32 remaining to play. That’s how regulation would end. It wasn’t until Hull scored the first basket in overtime that Kenai would retake the lead, 49-47. Shane Spalding’s only bucket of the game came at an opportune time in overtime, extending the Kardinals’ lead to 51-47. The teams traded free throws for much of the remainder of the game.
Dictating the pace in overtime was something Kenai had built upon throughout the second half, Felchle said. Kenai lost no time pushing the pace in the second half, as Reilly exploded for 11 third-quarter points and the Kardinals defense held Palmer to no field goals and only four free throws in a four-point Moose fourth quarter. It wasn’t until Looney hit a shot with 30 seconds left in overtime that Palmer ended a nearly 13-minute drought from the floor.
“Connor did a nice job,” Marvel said. “It was just that down the stretch, we didn’t execute like they did. We didn’t get stops when we needed to get stops. … At halftime, I told them, ‘Listen, this isn’t over. They’re going to come out hard, they’re going to come out strong,’ and they did. I was proud of my guys, they fought hard and through some adversity, but in the end, they were the better team.”
Kardinals 56, Moose 51, OT
Kenai 9 10 19 9 9 —56
Palmer 17 16 10 4 4 —51
KENAI (56) — McKee 0 0-0 0, Hull 6 7-10 20, Fitt 0 0-1 0, Sandahl 0 0-0 0, Reilly 8 4-5 22, Spalding 1 0-2 2, Hayes 5 2-4 12. Totals 20 13-22 56.
PALMER (51) — Nisbett 0 1-2 1, Looney 10 7-9 30, Straight 1 0-0 3, Matik 0 0-0 0, Buresh 4 3-4 11, Niekamp 2 0-0 4, Mayer 1 0-0 2. Totals 18 11-15 51.
3-point goals — Kenai 3 (Reilly 2, Hull 1); Palmer 4 (Looney 3, Straight 1).
Team fouls — Kenai 13, Palmer 18. Fouled out — Straight.